In Conversation with Kailey Bradt of OWA Haircare

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Describe your business in a few words?

OWA Haircare designs clean, conscious, concentrated haircare design for the people & planet alike.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

I originally had the concept for OWA in April 2016, while packing for a trip – something I did almost weekly for work. I was frustrated with all the small bottles of liquid product, so I began searching for alternatives. That’s when I discovered liquid shampoo is 80% water on average. With a background in chemical engineering, I started digging into product formulations and immediately recognized how much water was actually in our products. I immediately started testing some waterless alternatives, but unfortunately was frustrated in finding that none performed as well as my liquid products my stylist in LA had recommended. I thought if I could make a waterless, potentially powdered-format shampoo that worked as well as a liquid, if not better, I could be onto something.

I don’t think my mind left me with much of a choice whether to make this happen or not, because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had to do it. By October I had quit my full-time job and was enlisted in graduate school. I won $10,000 in a New York State Student Pitch Competition and knew there was no turning back after that.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

I grew up in upstate New York and developed a passion for environmental sustainability early on while in high school, where I started “The Eco-Club” with some of my chemistry classmates and a phenomenal chemistry teacher. This passion grew stronger as I pursued a chemical engineering degree at RIT.

Immediately after completion of my undergraduate degree, I joined an early stage startup in LA and fell in love with the fast-paced, ever-changing work environment. In my spare time, I started experimenting with clean beauty formulations, but didn’t have a clear path forward – it was more for fun.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial drive I would call it. I wanted to start my own business for as long as I can remember. 

Even when I was young (like 3) I would set up a store at my grandparents – I called it Weekends and had a bunny as my logo, I remember it clearly. I would distribute fake money to my family and tell them it would only work at my store so they had to spend it there. Then I moved to selling painted rocks (think ladybugs, butterflies, flowers) to people who would walk by my grandparents and started making some real money that way. I guess I had to differentiate from the lemonade everyone else was selling. I never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur, but looking back on it the traits were there!

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

When we started, it was just me with some people working part time. I didn’t have a PR firm – or even a budget for one – so I was doing all press requests myself and with whatever friends could help connect me to someone. My strategy was to get the word out organically by asking friends to post, asking people to write reviews on our site and to tell their friends, word of mouth. We were hopeful that brand awareness would grow in those organic ways, and were just hopeful that people would continue to share and spread the word. And it worked for the launch.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

I encountered my first challenge when I began to develop the formula. I was told over and over again if it could be done, a large corporation would have done it by now. Some would have found that demotivating, but I used it as fuel.

My second challenge was finding a manufacturing partner. It felt near impossible for over a year. If I even got a response from my cold outreach, I was lucky if they had the capability to manufacture a powder. Most manufacturers that deal with powders only manufacture color cosmetics – not bath and body products. I looked for dry shampoo manufacturers, but found that their order minimums were too high for a small brand. We made it happen. I learned resilience is key in entrepreneurship.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

Being 1 of 13 women in the world that was accepted to participate in the 2020 Sephora Accelerate program. I applied 3 years in a row until I was finally accepted. For a company like Sephora to recognize what I’m doing, believe in me, and invest in me is a dream. 

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

A lot more has happened online, which has been good for us throughout the pandemic. Many more people have shifted to shopping online. In the prestige hair care category, 80% of sales usually happen in stores, so it’s been tricky because everyone wants to smell the fragrance before committing to buying- you can’t do that on the computer.

We’ve definitely faced new challenges with thinking about how to grow through ecommerce now that all the big brands are also competing for more ecommerce sales, but it’s also created new opportunities given that people are now more open to shopping these types of products online.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

If you set a goal for your business, know that there’s more than way to get there. Don’t rely on just one thing to carry your business. Always have alternate ways to achieve that goal. 2020 has really taught all brands that things are unpredictable and change can happen in ways you may not be prepared for. When things don’t go as planned, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed – there’s just more than one way to achieve it.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

I had no concept of how long it would take to actually get the business going. There’s very much a misconception about how easy it is to create a brand and product – it’s an illusion. When you’re launching a hair care company that’s doing something that’s never been done before, or opening a bakery in your hometown, it takes a while to get to a place where it’s comfortable to say you have your own business and doesn’t feel like you’re just starting out. I’ve been working on OWA for 4 ½ years, and it still feels like it’s very new. I still think it’s cool more than my mom is ordering though she’s still a top customer of ours! She won’t even use a discount code I give her- I’ve tried.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

Yes, absolutely. I will say that work/life balance is hard to achieve while you’re in the early stages of your business – there is no doubt about that and I want to be transparent there. I can’t say that I always have it, but I want to make sure the people that I bring on to my team do. 

When I do find the balance, I really try to fully disconnect. I’ll set boundaries and separate my working and living space (even though I’ve been working from home), but creating space both physically and mentally is so important.

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

I recently got into extreme puzzling during quarantine. By extreme, I mean not doing much else until I complete a 500 or 1000 piece puzzle. It’s more fun with a friend because I’m competitive and love to see who gets more done, but it’s also great to work together and complete them!

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

  • Write things down. I physically write everything down, because I’m a very visual person. The act of making lists and crossing things out helps me stay on task.
  • Prioritize. When you’re running your own business, no matter how big or small, things always come up, and you need to prioritize based on urgency (time vs. how critical things are to your business). It’s sometimes harder to get to things that are bigger picture, but you need to make time for that.
  • Implement routines. I spend an hour every morning having my time whether that be answering emails or calling my grandma. I start everyday with water with lemon and a coffee. Having this routine in the morning helps me start my day with total focus.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

An Entreprenista is someone who is really resilient and sets an example for other female entrepreneurs. They’re able to inspire and give meaningful advice, but they’re also realistic. 

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